"The human character, we believe, requires in general constant and immediate control to prevent its being biased from right by the seductions of self-love."--Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. The Complete Writings of Thomas Jefferson; Memorial Edition: volume 14, page 489, 1904.
"Is it the less dishonest to do what is wrong, because not expressly prohibited by written law? Let us hope our moral principles are not yet in that stage of degeneracy."--Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. The Complete Writings of Thomas Jefferson; Memorial Edition: volume 13, page 360, 1904.
"Mankind is not a circle with a single center but an ellipse with two focal points of which facts are one and ideas the other."
Victor Hugo (1802--85), French poet, dramatist, novelist. Les Miserables, part 4, book 7, chapter 1 (1862).
The continually increasing emphasis on the individual and his rights since the start of the Enlightenment has led humankind into the habit where all human interactions are morally defined solely in terms of the individual. Little or no consideration is given to larger traditional human groupings, such as family, clan, tribe, a people or even all of humanity. This is not only destructive of the human condition as a whole, but easily leads to a falsely overblown perspective about ourselves as individuals and our place in the scheme of things.
This is not to say that the individual is unimportant. In fact, the belief of the individual in his rights is the sole source and only true repository for the rights and privileges of all larger groups of humans--including the family, the clan, the tribe or a people/nation as a whole. It is also the real source for the power, authority, and sovereignty of every legitimate human institution, including government. It is only by strenuously protecting the rights of the individual that the rights and privileges of groups of humans can be guaranteed.
However, individual rights are not absolute. There is a real difference between what we as individuals may desire, and what we may actually enjoy as a legal or a moral right. Regrettably, various people and their ideologies have continuously blurred or obscured that distinction over human history, usually in an attempt to gain some advantage over the rest of humanity, particularly within the realms of wealth and power. Someone once said that all great fortunes are based on an illegal or immoral act. Playwright George Bernard Shaw put it even more succinctly in the Preface to Major Barbara, "The faults of the burglar are the qualities of the financier."
We cannot legitimately argue for superior rights, or preferential treatment, because of who we are, what our current economic, political, or social status is, or the circumstances of our birth. As I have stated before, the basis of all power in human societies--including wealth--throughout history has been belief in that power's existence. The obvious and recognized manifestations of that power--land, gold, soldiers, ships, patronage, knowledge, factories, horses and other livestock, oil--have varied widely over the centuries and circumstances. For example, an Arab chieftain's wealth and power five centuries ago was measured by the number of horses and other livestock he owned, how much gold he had, and the size of his tribe. It is now measured by how much oil lies beneath his lands, and his patronage: especially his patronage of foreign governments and corporations.
As the fall of Rome so painfully demonstrated, wealth and birth status are ephemeral ideas, and can be easily lost whenever someone with greater power or cunning take them from you. These are also concepts that are relative: a ton of gold is worth less to a man dying of thirst in the middle of a desert than a gallon of water; a grandiose name or title simply increases your chance of being abducted for ransom. All of your wealth and its trappings have value only after you and those around you have achieved the minimum required for your continued health and well-being, and then establish a stable political system.
I do not believe that the bare minimum for survival of which Marx wrote in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts--and which I quoted at length in my article "Social Capitalism" (OpEdNews.com November 10, 2009) --are either fair or sufficient for humankind in our so-called "post industrial era."
For this reason, I will now fall back upon the ideas of that infamous "traitor to his class," and one of my heroes, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his State of the Union message, given--because he was ill--as a Fireside Chat from the White House on our nation's radios on January 11, 1944.
On that evening, FDR gave a speech outlining his vision for the direction that America, and he hoped the World, would take, after the end of the Second World War. Its basis was his Four Freedoms Speech, as his 1941 State of the Union message was called, which said that all nations should guarantee Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.
This 1944 speech--together with the Four Freedoms Speech--was so thorough, and so comprehensive, that four years later, the United Nations adopted the speech's basic points for the economic component of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here are some of the economic rights that President Roosevelt wanted to see guaranteed for all Americans, and the World:
Useful and remunerative employment, together with the potential to find an avocation and not simply a job; wages that provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, and recreation for themselves and their families; adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; protection from unfair competition for their business; a livable market price for the production of farmers and ranchers;
protections from old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; a quality education, ongoing if needed or desired.
President Roosevelt was already beginning this process for the American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen returning from the war with his idea for a G.I. Bill. If he had not died the following year, it is entirely possible that he might have made his dream a reality in his fourth term. His dream was to never again see the nation he loved, the United States of America, with one-third of its people: out of work, underfed, poorly housed, and ill-clothed; the situation he had inherited when he first took his oath of office in March, 1933.
So, it is incumbent upon us as humans to discover a balance between seeing that everyone has the means to attain these minimum requirements, while those with exemplary abilities are rewarded for their use of those abilities. Fairness, indeed justice, requires us to see that everyone is given the possibility to attain their highest possible potential in terms of their employment, in addition to seeing that everyone has the ability to live from the income realized by their employment.
However, in our search for fairness, let alone justice, we cannot neglect the two most historically prominent groups, who have consistently not only been denied their rights both as individuals and as a group, but whose ongoing exploitation has been humankind's most profound shame.
Except for those rare instances where the wives and children of the rich got seated first in a sinking vessel's lifeboats, the rights--not to mention the health and welfare--of women and children have at best been an afterthought when the affairs of nations and their peoples are considered, and at worst, completely ignored.
Even today, in these so-called "enlightened times," the rights, the needs, and the futures of women and children are ignored in the name of political expediency. If you doubt this, look at our current crisis over health care reform in the United States.
The two groups who are most adversely affected by America's current health care system are women and children. Men are not refused health insurance because of their gender, or a pre-existing condition like spousal abuse. If a child has a life-threatening disease, he will find it next to impossible to get health insurance later in life, even if he is completely cured. And his parents will be unable to change jobs, because of that pre-existing condition. It is indentured servitude, with an eighteen plus year time limit on the contract.
Unfortunately few, if any, philosophers in history have even considered, let alone championed, the cause of children and their rights as part of their philosophy: that burden seems to have been taken up only by poets, prophets, and psychologists. However, you occasionally will see men who will champion women and their cause for equal rights and protections before the Twentieth Century, and an increasing number--together with women--starting this crusade in earnest in the Twentieth Century. One of these early proponents was Karl Marx, in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, ("Private Property and Communism;" p.p. 74-5, 1844)
"In the approach to woman as the spoil and hand-maid of communal lust is expressed the infinite degradation in which man exists for himself, for the secret of this approach has its unambiguous, decisive, plain and undisguised expression in the relation of man to woman and in the manner in which the direct and natural species-relationship is conceived. The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman. In this natural species-relationship man's relation to nature is immediately his relation to man, just as his relation to man is immediately his relation to nature -- his own natural destination. In this relationship, therefore, is sensuously manifested, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which the human essence has become nature to man, or to which nature to him has become the human essence of man."
"From this relationship one can therefore judge man's whole level of [social] development. From the character of this relationship follows how much man as a species-being, as man, has come to be himself and to comprehend himself; the relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It therefore reveals the extent to which man's natural behaviour has become human, or the extent to which the human essence in him has become a natural essence -- the extent to which his human nature has come to be natural to him. This relationship also reveals the extent to which man's need has become a human need; the extent to which, therefore, the other person as a person has become for him a need -- the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being."
I would love to be able to quote from one of the Founders and Framers of the United States something--anything--which expresses the unambiguous moral need for the just treatment of women. However, only Thomas Paine among the Founders ever spoke for the rights of women on any consistent basis. And I regret to say, Paine never wrote on the subject as eloquently as Marx.
I have been telling anyone who would listen to me for the last fifteen years that they need to actually read Karl Marx, and not just his and Engel's The Communist Manifesto. Reading the Manifesto and saying you understand Marx, is like reading Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, and saying you understand all of modern theoretical physics. While many of Marx's solutions for laissez faire--or as I call it anti-social capitalism, were wrong or went too far, his observations on what was wrong with the system, especially for workers, was generally on target. We cannot consistently beggar more than half of our people--which is always the historical result with laissez faire capitalism--with depressions and bank failures, and expect them to sit still for it. As President Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."
"Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child's world and thus a world event."
Gaston Bachelard (1884--1962), French scientist, philosopher, literary theorist. Fragments of a Poetics of Fire, chapter 1, "The Phoenix, a Linguistic Phenomenon" (1988; translated 1990).
When we deal with children, we almost always treat them in a way that is absolutely wrong. At worst we treat them as objects: as things through which we might vicariously experience our most secret expectations, desires, ambitions, hopes and dreams. At best we treat them as little adults: showing them at least some degree of respect, while denying them their right to fully experience being children by saddling them with a degree of responsibility they do not want or deserve--in both the positive and negative sense of that word--and are completely unprepared to accept.
Children cannot be given all of the rights that an adult has: medical science tells us that the prefrontal lobe of the human brain is the last part to fully develop; somewhere around the twenty-first year. The prefrontal lobe is the part which gives us our control over impulsive behavior, one of the primary attributes that differentiates between an adult and a child.
However, the very lack of impulse control by this nearly adult human, especially when their hormones are in full hue and cry, and their sex drive is a new experience, means that provision must be made to provide additional protection of their basic rights in order to prevent their exploitation by older predators. There is no easy answer in this matter: but putting our head in the sand with abstinence only sex education helps no one but the baby brokers making commissions off of underage mother's children.
As Marx points out above, how a man treats a woman (and I am certain the converse is also true) gives us insight into how he will interact with all of his fellow humans. I guarantee you that you will find few if any supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment in the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. If a man treats women with respect, he will probably treat everyone he comes in contact with the same way.
My experience shows me that how an adult treats a child demonstrates their overall degree of adaptability and tolerance towards people of different backgrounds and beliefs that they may run into. A person who keeps telling his kids to shut up, probably wishes he could say the say thing to his immigrant neighbor down the street.
If we, as a society, learn to treat the opposite sex and children with fairness and respect, I believe that we will discover that we are treating all of the members of our society with a greater degree of fairness and respect.
When I speak of fairness, I speak of something much more than simply equal or identical treatment. Treating everyone with an equal degree of cruelty is still cruelty. Fairness to me always has a positive moral component of compassion and understanding.
Fairness to me is more of an ideal that is sought after than it is a goal to be achieved. Circumstances must always modify our interactions with one another: while fairness may generally require us as a society or an individual to treat everyone in exactly the same way, it may also require us to change how we treat someone in a specific situation.
Once again, as Marx pointed out--and I expanded upon--above, the beliefs that we embrace about the opposite sex and children, gives us a guide by which we may measure our social development as humans, as well as a measure for our tolerance for the new and different in our lives.
This may not be, in and of itself, a solution to the problems of bigotry and intolerance in the World. But I believe that it is a first step, a means to measure ourselves in these matters, and make corrections if we find ourselves wanting.